July 31, 2021
Some commentators have noted the silence of Canada’s Left in the face of anti-government protests in Cuba. Why the reluctance to condemn a communist dictatorship?
Well, as it turns out, some members of Canada’s Left have a fairly positive view of communism. One such prominent Canadian leftist was C.B. Macpherson (1911-1987), an internationally-renowned political scientist who taught political theory at the University of Toronto. Among other things, he was especially known for his critiques of capitalism and individualism.
Interestingly, Macpherson also defended Soviet Communism as genuine democracy in action. This can be seen in a series of CBC radio messages he delivered in 1965 that were subsequently published as a book entitled The Real World of Democracy. These lectures argued there were three forms of government that could be legitimately called democracies: the liberal democracies of the West, the Soviet bloc countries, and the one-party states of the Third World.
As Macpherson put it, “democracy is not properly to be equated with our unique Western liberal-democracy.” Instead, “the clearly non-liberal systems which prevail in the Soviet countries, and the somewhat different non-liberal systems of most of the underdeveloped countries of Asia and Africa, have a genuine historical claim to the title democracy.”
Macpherson explained the meaning of democracy has undergone some change over time. It hasn’t always referred to the kind of constitutional system common in the Western countries: “Democracy originally meant rule by the common people, the plebeians. It was very much a class affair: it meant the sway of the lowest and largest class.” Thus, Macpherson argued Soviet Communism and other one-party states can legitimately be called democracies, based on this definition. That is, he used this conception of “democracy” to describe some of the world’s most brutal and repressive regimes.
Karl Marx’s proposed “dictatorship of the proletariat” was an expression of genuine democracy in Macpherson’s view. He noted many people would find it outrageous to consider the dictatorship of the proletariat to be a form of democracy. “But,” he wrote, “to call it democracy was not outrageous at all: it was simply to use the word in its original and then normal sense.”
Macpherson’s analysis gets even worse. Lenin extended Marx’s theory by arguing a revolution would need to be undertaken by a relatively small group of class-conscious people he called the vanguard, which is to say, the Communist Party.
From the Communist perspective, since the vast majority of people in any society are debased by the structures of capitalism, they cannot be trusted to participate in political decision-making. To allow their participation would just perpetuate the problems of the old, capitalist society. Only the vanguard could bring about the necessary reforms. As Macpherson explains: “Lenin, building on Marx, came out for a seizure of power by a vanguard who would forcibly transform the basic relations of society in such a way that the people would become undebased and capable of a fully human existence, at which point compulsive government would no longer be needed.”